Irish Champions Weekend Sunday: Can O’Brien win all five Group races?
After a couple of big upsets on the Leopardstown kickoff to Irish Champions Weekend, will the unpredictability carry over to the Curragh on Sunday? Or will the pendulum swing back to the market leaders?
An Aidan O’Brien clean sweep of the second half of Irish Champions Weekend remains a definite possibility, to use one of the trainer’s favorite phrases when all options remain on the table. In three of Sunday’s five Group events, it’s a question of which Ballydoyle runner to prefer, while in the other two, it’s a case of needing the favorite to bring his “A” game.
Let’s dive into the card featuring two Breeders’ Cup Challenge races and more potential clues to Del Mar in November.
2ND Race, the Blandford (G2) – First start back from an injury layoff, a short price on the North American morning line, and a trip shorter than her best are all reasons to try to beat #4 Seventh Heaven (8-5), but she’s the class of this field by some way. Is it so unreasonable to think she can win this without being fully cranked? While Seventh Heaven was top-class last year, she appeared to be building upon that foundation when crushing males in the Jockey Club (G2) before being sidelined. Bookmakers have priced up her O’Brien stablemate #8 Rain Goddess as the favorite, with Ryan Moore aboard, making her 4-1 morning line questionable. As logical as Rain Goddess is on paper, with runner-up efforts in the Irish Oaks (G1) to Enable and the Pretty Polly (G1) over this 1 1/4-mile distance, she strikes me as more of a hard trier than a top talent. Perhaps this is another opportunistic shot for her, but I keep thinking she’ll find one too good for her, and the yielding-to-soft ground is a concern. Hence between Seventh Heaven’s fitness question and my not being entirely persuaded by Rain Goddess, this race might be the weakest link in the chain for O’Brien.
William Haggas has the best shot of denying Ballydoyle with t#9 Sea of Grace, whose 8-1 morning line is totally out of whack with the market that has her a close second choice to Rain Goddess. Well regarded by original trainer John Oxx, she beat Eziyra in the Flame of Tara (G3) here last August. The Born to Sea filly is well up to Group 1 standard as the runner-up in the French 1000 Guineas (G1) and fourth in the Falmouth (G1), but it took a dip into listed company for her to regain the winning thread. And did she ever, positively bolting up in the Dick Hern at Haydock. She’ll enjoy the rain-softened going, and pedigree suggests that 10 furlongs might even be better for her. I’ve hoped for big things from South African star #6 Smart Call (7-1), which haven’t come to fruition, but she’s been in the superfecta in three of four European outings and figures to be in the mix again. Defending champion #5 Shamreen (6-1) faces a far tougher field in her repeat bid than she did a year ago.
3RD Race, the Flying Five (G2) – After Winter was upset in Saturday’s Matron (G1), and Churchill less surprisingly failed to rebound in the Irish Champion (G1), can we trust another would-be rebounder #6 Caravaggio to live up to billing at an infernal price? I certainly hope so, since it’s not pleasant to watch a colt lose his former brilliance. This smacks of a last-chance saloon for him to run himself back into Everest (G1) possibilities, with the “Win & You’re In” provision furnishing the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) as an alternative. The Everest was all but off the table after his two recent duds. But an Australian venture would be commercially important for his future career as a shuttle stallion – only if the real Caravaggio promises to show up, of course. Better to skip the Everest altogether than go down and get beaten. Hence the critical nature of the Sunday reconnaissance mission to determine if he is back. The cutback to five furlongs just adds another variable into the mix, since he certainly seemed to want every yard of six at Royal Ascot. Perhaps the rain-softened going will turn it into more of a slog.
If Caravaggio loses the plot again, it could turn into a jump ball in these conditions. #3 Cotai Glory (9-2) is logical between his soft-ground form as the near-misser in last year’s King’s Stand (G1), and his latest third to Marsha and Lady Aurelia in the Nunthorpe (G1) shows he’s still capable. #2 Caspian Prince (6-1) is an obvious threat after upsetting Marsha in the July 15 Sapphire (G2) at this course and distance, but the eight-year-old returns from a two-month break following that career-best, and I’m not sure the free-running veteran can wire them if the ground is truly soft. #11 Gorane (20-1) has bomb potential in light of her last-out victory in the Abergwaun in similar conditions at Tipperary, but if you forgive disappointing favorite #8 Son of Rest (8-1) that one, he has dark horse appeal back on this course. #1 Ardhoomey (10-1) can’t be overlooked as the defending champion of this race either.
4TH Race, the Moyglare Stud (G1) – This “Win & You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) shapes up as the Ballydoyle battalion ganging up on one very good rival from the Jessica Harrington yard. Out of more loyalty than hard-boiled sense, I’d like to think that O’Brien’s #10 September (7-1) can move forward off her fourth in the course-and-distance prep, the Debutante (G2). The daughter of Deep Impact and Peeping Fawn was so commanding in her Leopardstown maiden romp and in the Chesham at Royal Ascot, where she beat Mark Johnston’s eventual Princess Margaret (G3) winner Nyaleti and Godolphin’s colt Masar, who just captured the Solario (G3). Perhaps September needed her last off the two-month freshening since the Chesham, although it’s also possible that she already needs longer than seven furlongs.
Stablemate #5 Clemmie (9-2) likewise boasts a win over Nyaleti in the Duchess of Cambridge (G2) last time at Newmarket. The full sister to Churchill has blossomed in her last pair and is liable to make it a hat trick here with Ryan Moore, with the only question mark being the softest ground she’s met so far.
The aforementioned Harrington filly is #2 Alpha Centauri (5-1), dominant in her first two and beaten only a neck when last seen in the Albany (G3) at Royal Ascot. She had Clemmie behind her in seventh, but that formline probably can’t be taken literally at this point. On the plus side, Alpha Centauri handles give in the ground quite well, and the handsome gray figures to progress further being by Mastercraftsman and descending in the matrilineal line from Miesque.
I may be underestimating O’Brien’s Debutante exacta, since #8 Magical (9-5) went wire to wire on softish going much like Sunday’s, and #7 Happily (6-1) was a game-chasing second after a blistering win in the Silver Flash (G3). The suspicion is that the big guns are firing for the main event, though. That’s the same reasoning that gives me pause about promising debut winners #9 Muirin (12-1) and #4 Chiara Luna (15-1).
5TH Race, the Vincent O’Brien National (G1) – Granted #5 Gustav Klimt was Houdini-like in the Superlative (G2), but should that make him as short as 2-5 when this race has come up deeper? The jury’s out on how strong the Superlative was, and historically O’Brien’s best juveniles aren’t sighted at the Newmarket July Festival anyway. The ground only adds to the list of questions about a race that looks more complex than at first blush early in the week.
O’Brien decided to keep in another very promising, if rough-around-the-edges, type in #7 Rostropovich (20-1), and I’m tempted to see him as a serious upset chance. The Frankel half-brother to juvenile Group 1 winner and promising young sire Zoffany is a real grinder, and just got up in the last stride of the Futurity (G2) over this track and trip on this kind of ground. Maybe I’m unduly influenced by how much Frankel’s son Nelson improved in Saturday’s Willis Towers Watson Champions Juvenile (G3), but Rostropovich may be sitting on a better effort himself. At half that price, he’d be worth a flyer.
Jim Bolger’s #8 Verbal Dexterity (15-1) is another overlay, as a 9 1/2-length debut winner at this course and distance on soft. Turning back to six furlongs for the Railway (G2), he went down by a length to #1 Beckford (5-1), who’s since just missed in the Phoenix (G1). Beckford can confirm the form over an extra furlong here, but their price differential is simply too big relative to their chances. While softer ground may help #3 Brother Bear (15-1) rebound from recent losses, he may be one of those precocious types who doesn’t keep advancing over the season.
6TH Race, the Irish St Leger (G1) – It’s ironic that the longest race on the card has a vaguely similar feel to the shortest. Both outcomes hinge on the performance of the best horse in the race, who happens to be trained by O’Brien. The similarities end there, since #4 Order of St George (2-5) isn’t under the kind of cloud that Caravaggio is trying to dispel. Just held by the valiant Big Orange in his Gold Cup (G1) title defense at Royal Ascot, the outstanding stayer got right back on track to air in the Irish St Leger Trial (G3) for the third consecutive year. The one thing that got him dethroned here last year was a tactical miscue, giving too much rope to front-running #9 Wicklow Brave (20-1), and Ryan Moore should be alive to that this time around.
The most intriguing upset candidate is the Harrington-trained #6 Torcedor (7-1). A revelation when upped in trip to marathons this spring, the Fastnet Rock gelding demolished a solid field at Leopardstown before upstaging Order of St George in the Vintage Crop (G3). Needless to say, the beaten favorite was simply limbering up for his main aim at Royal Ascot, so the result isn’t definitive. Torcedor may have been stretched too far over the Gold Cup’s 2 1/2 miles, but was not disgraced in fifth. Back down to the 1 3/4-mile distance he prefers, he might emerge as the top challenger.
#2 Dartmouth (8-1) is genuine and proven at the trip, making him a logical contender if one likelier for a minor award. John Gosden’s #8 Western Hymn (20-1) deserves a crack at the staying ranks, since his only previous foray in the vicinity of this distance resulted in an Ormonde (G3) victory. #10 Mount Moriah (20-1) could be a sleeper, considering that the Ralph Beckett sophomore was third to early St Leger (G1) favorite Crystal Ocean in the Gordon (G3), and two back, he ran off in a 1 3/4-mile Ascot handicap. He also gets nine pounds from his elders.
Aidan O'Brien photo courtesy of and coypright Breeders' Cup Ltd.